Hong Kong ” Dustbins” by Geoff Walker – ex Bank Line and long time Master in the Far East…..

Hong Kong Dustbins of the South China Sea

By the mid 1950’s the world’s shipping fleets were recovering after the high losses during WW 2. Europe was building new and more modern tonnage at quite a rapid pace, and the Europe to Asia shipping trade was also entering a period of renewed expansion. This gave opportunities to Asian corporations that were inclined towards ship owning, to enter the market and develop their business. This was made easier for them because of the abundance of older tonnage that was becoming available on the market at cheap prices. In most cases the ships were old and well worn, but still with a few years life remaining.

As a consequence, the 1950-1960s saw a large number of these older vessels finding their way into the hands of Far Eastern owners. Hong Kong was an attractive location for many of these fledgling ship owners to establish their business Head Quarters and develop their fleets. Hong Kong offered stability of government, a competitive commercial environment, and a vibrant shipping register that provided an air of respectability due to the fact that it was closely fashioned on that of the United Kingdom. There were those however, who registered their ships in Panama and operated their ships from Hong Kong, under the notion that Panama may be a more flexible register for the ageing ships, and there was less transparency for companies when registered in Panama. Some of the more dodgy operators looking upon this as a convenient means of avoiding liability in the eventuality of financial delinquency or mishap linked to their vessels. All said and done, and in reality, a Panamanian Company was nothing more than a brass plate on the door of an attorney’s office in Panama.

Hence, there was a “Boom” in the number of shipping enterprises and vessels being registered in Hong Kong during this period. Many of the shipping companies traded their vessels within Asia, particularly those countries that were within relatively close proximity to the South China Sea, such as Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan (aka Formosa), Philippines, Borneo, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and Malaya as it was then known. These old vessels were very dominant in the waters around these areas. The term “Hong Kong Dustbin” evolved due to many of the early owners just painting their vessel’s funnels all black – somewhat resembling and upturned dust bin. Henceforth, the name stuck. It would also be true to say that there was a fair share of shady ship operators around in those early days of development that may not have been so enthusiastic in openly advertising their company insignia or identity, for reasons best known to themselves. 

The only real way of identifying these “Hong Kong Dustbins” was by the Union Flag prominently painted on each side of the vessels hull, with the ship’s name in Chinese Characters, likewise displayed. It would be true to say that this was primarily to facilitate ease of recognition as there were a number of open conflict zones about the China Seas around that era, such as China and Formosa, North Korea and Vietnam. Restrictions of trade applied between some countries, a good example of which was between Formosa (Taiwan) and China with most commodities being transshipped via Hong Kong on what were loosely defined, but not strictly correct, neutral tonnage. In the mid- to late 1950s the Formosa Straits was notorious as a conflict zone between China and Formosa (now known as Taiwan). Similarly, North Vietnam became a “War Zone” in the mid 1960s, when numerous vessels were mined or bombed.

It was only around the mid-1960’s that many of the allegedly dodgy shipping companies, threw off their shady veils, and started to take a pride in vessel ownership and display company Motifs and Logos on vessel funnels. This period was also a golden age for numerous ship management concerns that managed the various vessels on behalf of beneficial owners, another way of masking true ownership in many cases.

Sometimes, these old ladies would anchor for weeks either at Yau Ma Tei or Western Anchorages, to await the opportunity of suitable cargoes. In the event of an approaching Typhoon they often shifted to a more sheltered area of Hong Kong known as “Tolo Harbor”, which was often the scene of numerous groundings following a Typhoon.

During the first half of 1960s there were lucrative cargoes available for ships willing to trade to North Vietnam, namely; Haiphong and Port Campha, situated at the head of the Gulf of Tonkin. Port Campha was a port known for its coal exports. This was a temptation for some owners of “old ladies” of the sea. By paying ship’s crews so called “Danger Money” they were attracted to this trading area which resulted in a significant number of vessels becoming casualties, due to bombing or mining.

One of the dangers associated with remaining in Hong Kong Harbor during a typhoon was, the serious consequences of dragging anchors in Typhoon conditions. This seriously increased the danger of collisions between vessels and also the high risk of dragging anchors across the telephone cable reserves and snagging the various marine cables that linked Hong Kong with Kowloon, as well as internationally. The Hong Kong Marine Department was therefore, very actively engaged in implementing the “Typhoon Regulations” applicable to ships and raised the alert at an early stage once a pending Typhoon became imminent.

Of course, Hong Kong had its share of long established and more traditional ship owners. This included, amongst others, China Navigation Company, Indo-China SS Company (Jardines), John Manners Group and its various shipping subsidiaries, Williamsons and their Douglas SS Company, Harley Mullion and Company, 

Moller Shipping, Wallem and Company, to name but several. These entities were the backbone of Hong Kong shipping during the early and mid 1960s, prior to the advent of many newcomers which are household names in Hong Kong shipping circles nowadays.

Hong Kong was also an attractive management base for Euro-continental ship owners who had traditionally operated regionally around the Far East, such as Thoresen, Wrangell, and Bruusgaard of Norway, Jebsen of Denmark

Gallary of typical “Hong Kong Dustbins” during the 1950-60s

Thank You Geoff – Author of ” A Tramp for all the Oceans”


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